Photo by Alec Ash, Wulong Mountain, Liaoning Province, February 2013.
Travels in China: A Brief Encounter with a Mountain Mystic
by Alec Ash
The Taoist priest looked at me askance and guessed correctly that I was British.
I was in his temple three days before the Chinese new year, following a friend from the area who was there to light incense and drop money into the collection box for good luck in the year ahead. The red-faced deity guarding the box stroked his meter-long beard and accepted the bribe.
We were halfway up Wulong mountain outside Dandong in northeastern China, 16 kilometers from the North Korean border. A golden Buddhist temple higher up the hillside overshadowed its more humble Taoist brother, with low grey walls and a roofed red gate. Stenciled outside the entrance, two yin-yangs for punctuation, was 人能弘道 非到弘人 – “Man can enlarge the Way; the Way cannot enlarge Man.”
Inside was a courtyard, a bronze censer for burning incense, a cramped shrine room, living quarters with kitchen, and a five-foot-nothing priest with a square chunk of jade tied to the front of his cap that looked heavier than him.
As soon as my nationality was uncovered, the priest ushered me into a back room and beckoned for me to sit on a stool, while he parked himself behind an oversized wooden desk and gathered scraps of blank paper around him. I had the creeping feeling that whatever Taoist magic I was going to witness was going to cost me something more material.
“What astrological year do you belong to?” the priest asked me in Chinese, picking up a Biro pen and scribbling his prediction on a scrap.
“The ox,” I said.
The priest crumpled up the paper he had written on, and threw it to one side.
“How many brothers or sisters do you have?” he asked, writing a number.
“I have one older brother.”
The priest hesitated for a long second. Then he showed me his scrap, the number two on it.
“Including you, there are two brothers.”
Sorcery. There were truly more things in heaven and earth than dreamed of in my philosophy.
“What floor of your building do you live on?” he asked, scribbling again, spurred on by his success.
“The third floor.”
He had written the number three. Alright, that one was kind of impressive.
“How old is your mother?”
I told him my mother’s age. He had gotten it wrong by three years, but sportingly he showed me his scrap anyway with a shrug of his shoulders, as if to say: meh, two out of four.
Having established his credentials so convincingly, we got to the advice portion of the session. “When you choose a woman,” he began, “you must remember three things.”
Lady tips. Always useful.
“Number one: she should be Chinese.”
That’s curious, I had been told the same thing by my landlady not two weeks ago. In fact, there was someone I had my eye on, and she was Chinese-born. He had my ear.
“Number two: she should be born in the year of the rat or the dragon.”
I did a quick calculation from the birthday of my romantic interest. Dragon. Score.
“She should definitely not be born in the year of the tiger, sheep or horse.”
Mental note filed and stored.
“Number two: her nose should be like this” – he made an indecipherable swoop of his hand over his nose – and not like this” – another swoop in the opposite direction.
I asked for clarification. The tip of the nose, he explained more patiently, should point up rather than curve down. He even drew me a helpful diagram of correct and incorrect noses, with slit-shaped eyes above them, presumably to reinforce the first point.
“Also, the eyebrows should be high, the cheeks should be low, and she should not have hair on her upper lip.”
I would have to check all this when I got back to Beijing (or back on Facebook). But I was relieved that I was not destined to marry a mustachioed woman.
I looked to the priest, feeling that perhaps he had a final word of wisdom to impart. But the Way is mysterious, the priest was silent, and my last commune with the unfathomable enigmas of Tao was indeed related to female upper lip hair.
|—||Haley James Scott, One Tree Hill|
“I was one of the first on the scene. The Afghan security forces normally shut down a suicide bombing like this pretty quickly. I was able to get to the epicentre of the explosion. It was carnage, there were bodies, flames were coming out of the buildings. I remember feeling very scared because there was still popping and hissing and small explosions, and the building was collapsing. It was still very fresh and there was a risk of another bomb. It was one of those situations where you have to put fear aside and focus on the job at hand: to watch the situation and document it.
This woman was escorted out of the building and round this devastated street corner. It epitomised the whole mood – this older woman caught in the middle of this ridiculous, tragic event. I wish I could have found out how her life unravelled, but as soon as the scene was locked down, I ran back to the office to file.
As a photographer, you feel helpless. Around you are medics, security personnel, people doing good work. It can be agonisingly painful to think that all you’re doing is taking pictures.
When I won a World Press award for this photograph, I felt sad. People were congratulating me and there was a celebration over this intense tragedy that I had captured. I reconciled it by deciding that more people see a story when a photographer’s work is decorated.”
-Adam Ferguson, Afghanistan, 2009